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Overheard in GenForum: From Scotland to US in 1900
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

September 23, 1999
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I am just getting started tracing the family of my grandfather. His parents, James McGHIE and Jane SMITH migrated from an unknown place in Scotland to the US around 1900. They were in Leavenworth, KS, 1905, and died in West Plains, MO early 1950s. Children included James, Robert, Jean, Mary, William, Elizabeth, Edward, David, and Alexander. Some changed spelling to McGee in US. Any info would be great. -- Kathy

A: If you haven't done so already, you will want to take the first step by getting the death certificates for both James McGHIE and Jane SMITH. It is possible that for "place of death" it will only list Scotland, but you will have a better idea of how old they were and when they were born. And if you are lucky, it will list names for the parents of the deceased.

You will also want to locate the family in the 1920 and 1910 census. While this will help to pin down exactly where they were during these years, it will also give you the clues you need to pursue the naturalization and immigration records that will help you in determining the towns in Scotland where James and Jane were born.

Naturalization records and passenger lists can be of help in determining where a person was born.

Important Information About Passenger Lists

Passenger lists have gone through some changes over the years. For the United States, the first official passenger lists were begun in 1820. These early lists included just the basic facts about an individual, much as the early census records didn't supply us with as much information as the later ones did. For passengers arriving from 1820 to about 1897 you are going to find out only:

  • Name of passenger
  • Age of passenger
  • Occupation
  • Country of origin

Toward the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century, the records became more detailed. Part of this is because the jurisdiction of these lists went from Customs to Immigration. It is possible that the larger number of immigrants that were arriving had something to do with the changes in the questions asked on the passenger lists. In addition to the above,the passenger lists now asked for such information as:

  • Person picking them up
  • Place of birth
  • Where they were going to live

However, to get the passenger lists, you either need to search an index, if one is available, or know the exact arrival date or name of the ship upon which they arrived. So that is why it is usually a good idea to begin with the naturalization records.

Important Information About Naturalization

Just like the passenger lists have changed, so have the naturalization records. Originally, they were handled on the county level. And then in 1906, the records fell under federal jurisdiction. Again, as time progressed the forms and papers created during the naturalization process have improved in regards to information needed by genealogists. It will depend on what year you find for naturalization in the census records as to whether you will want to concentrate on the county level or the federal level.

Many of the pre-1906 naturalization records may be found at the various National Archives Branches. And some of these records are available on microfilm through your local Family History Center, just as the passenger lists are.

Turning to Scotland

Once you have additional information about where and when James and Jane were born, you can then turn to the records of Scotland. Civil registration, the recording of vital records in Scotland, was begun in 1855. The indexes to these records are available on microfilm from the Family History Center, as are some of the actual vital records. This will begin your research trail into the Scottish records.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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